WHAT TYPES OF PROPERTY DEFECTS IS A LANDOWNER REQUIRED TO FIX OR WARN GUESTS ABOUT?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Brock v. Richmond-Berea Cemetery District, 264 Kan. 613, 957 P.2d 505 (1998).
This case addresses the following issue:
What types of property defects is a landowner required to fix or warn guests about?
Under Kansas law, a property owner can be liable for injuries caused by defects on the property. Id. at 620. A landowner must exercise reasonable care based on the circumstances, which may include fixing defects, warning about dangers, and generally keeping up the property. Id. In this case, the court was asked what duty a property owner had in regards to an unknown defect. Id. The court determined that a property owner is only liable for defects that are known or should be known at the time of injury. Id.
Defendant was responsible for maintaining a graveyard that was open to the public. Id. at 615. Defendant had a grounds keeper to maintain the area, including mowing, trimming trees, and other basic duties. Id. However, Defendant specifically did not examine or inspect gravestones; these were left to the deceased’s family to look after and maintain. Id. Plaintiff was a young girl that was taken to visit graves at the cemetery. Id. She chased after some birds, crossing in front of a large gravestone that was sitting at a 45-degree angle. Id. The stone fell on the girl and caused great injury. Id. The stone had been placed in 1901, and the groundskeeper had seen the stone approximately a week before the accident, titling only slightly (5-10 degrees). Id.
The first question was whether or not Defendant knew that the gravestone posed a risk to those that used the cemetery. Id. at 620. The groundskeeper knew the stone to be titled, approximately 10 degrees, a week before it fell. Id. at 616. However, the stone had been titled to that degree for at least 6 years, likely even much longer. Id. at 622. There had never been any indication that this tilt posed any danger, and the court could not find that Defendant actually knew that the stone was faulty and could fall. Id. at 623.
The more difficult question was whether Defendant should have known about the defect. Id. A property owner cannot simply ignore the state of his property and then claim ignorance of any problems that cause injury. Id. Instead, the law imposes liability not only for known defects, but also for defects that would have been discovered through reasonable upkeep. Id. Here, the record indicated that Defendant did perform regular upkeep of the property. Id. at 620. However, maintaining gravestones was specifically not part of what Defendant did. Id. This meant Defendant was only under an obligation to take note of dangers that were apparent from the general upkeep of the graveyard. Id. Though the stone was tilted, it had remained at a constant and minor tilt for years without issue. Id. at 616. This was odd, but it was not so egregious as to warrant further investigation by Defendant—to hold otherwise would be to impose an obligation that another party had specifically agreed to undertake (maintaining the headstones). Id. at 624. Finding that Defendant neither knew nor should have known about the danger the stone posed after shifting to a much steeper tilt, the court found Plaintiff had no cause of action based upon premise liability. Id.